The question of sustainability in restaurants

In May this year, chef Daniel Humm announced that his New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park would reopen with an entirely plant-based menu. From one of the most celebrated restaurants in the world, this move away from caviar and suckling pig speaks volumes. “The current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways,” wrote the Swiss chef in a statement on his restaurant’s website, “[and it is] clear that after everything we all experienced this past year, we can’t open the same restaurant.”

This move from the fine dining institution speaks to the rapid change taking place in the restaurant sector. At present, the industry faces a number of challenges around food waste, packaging and carbon emissions. But growing pressure from consumers, governments and climate change activists are forcing big players to take action while giving way to a new generation of innovative operators.

There are a few lenses to consider. As a first port of call, restaurants can adapt their menu to encourage more planet-friendly eating. From Daniel Humm’s three Michelin starred restaurant to global fast-food chains, we are seeing a swift uptake of plant-based menu items. In January, Deliveroo reported that the number of UK restaurants catering to vegans had more than doubled in a year, and Wagamama recently committed to a 50% plant-based menu by the end of 2021.

Wagamama's new vegan dishes.
Wagamama recently committed to a 50% plant-based menu by the end of this year.

We’ve also seen efforts to reduce or adapt packaging. From coffee shops introducing discounts for customers who bring in reusable cups to restaurant chains switching from black to grey plastic for takeaway containers, actions to tackle unnecessary packaging and single-use plastics are well-documented across the sector.

Food waste is another key area. According to WRAP – a charity working with businesses, governments and communities to practically improve resource efficiency – hospitality firms throw away the equivalent of 1.3 billion meals ever year, and most restaurants are looking at ways to cut this down. In most cases, third-party organisations play a critical role, either by collecting food waste and ensuring that it is reused or recycled, or distributing it to individual consumers. In October 2016, for example, YO! Sushi partnered with Too Good To Go to ensure prepared food didn’t go to waste at closing time. Since then, the restaurant chain has saved over 110,000 meals equating to 275,000 kg of CO2.

While these sorts of incremental changes can have a positive impact over time, the most forward-thinking businesses are overhauling their organisations. By scrutinising entire supply lines, restaurant companies can not only ensure sustainable sourcing methods, but also identify what substitutions – of products and processes – can be made to have less of an impact on the planet.

“By scrutinising entire supply lines, restaurant companies can not only ensure sustainable sourcing methods, but also identify what substitutions – of products and processes – can be made to have less of an impact on the planet.”

Excitingly, there are pockets of best practice to be found from right across the sector, and around the world. Forward-thinking operators have innovated to create concepts underpinned by sustainable sourcing, seasonal produce and creative solutions to food waste. ‘Farm-to-fork’ and ‘nose-to-tail’ eating is growing in popularity, driven by consumer demand for greater transparency and a less wasteful dining experience. In the UK, The PIG’s seven-strong estate of hotels and restaurants has retained its environmentally friendly practices while expanding across the country, by committing to only using produce that it has grown itself or sourced from within a 25-mile radius. At the beginning of this year, Michelin even launched a new accolade to highlight restaurants at the forefront of the industry when it comes to sustainability: the Michelin Green Star.

Small businesses are certainly blazing the trail, and it remains to be seen whether large chains can replicate or adapt these sustainable practices for their complex supply lines. Indeed, despite the growing appetite for sustainable dining options among consumers, not one large chain springs to mind as performing to a gold-standard on sustainability.

In fact, looking through the list of certified B Corporations – businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose – the restaurant sector is conspicuous only by its absence. While a handful of independent operators have achieved the accolade, no major player (and not one in the UK) has gained accreditation. In stark contrast, searching for UK-based B Corp food and drinks businesses produces five pages of results, including Danone UK.

There are a number of avenues that restaurant businesses can take, but the greatest challenge lies in striking the balance between sustainability and commercial viability. Operators must experiment to find ways to limit their impact on the planet, while still providing a service and food offering that customers want to buy.

“Sustainability is what the customer wants… and small changes now will lead to big changes in the future” Jenny Costa – Founder and CEO, Rubies in the Rubble

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the sustainable restaurant space. For many operators, the success of their sustainability relies on their small size, their proximity to farms or allotments and their personal relationship with responsible suppliers – none of which are easy to replicate on a national or even international scale.

However, it’s clear this picture is also changing fast. Earlier this week, we caught up with Jenny Costa, founder and CEO of Rubies in the Rubble – an award-winning sustainable food brand that creates condiments from otherwise discarded produce.

“Sustainability is what the customer wants”, Jenny reminded us, “and small changes now will lead to big changes in the future.” With that in mind, “one of the main challenges for all sustainable businesses at the moment is that the big brands are stepping up their own sustainability agenda. CSR used to be bolted on – a separate part of the business – but today it’s moving right to the heart of so many companies. Businesses like ours need to stay one step ahead and constantly innovate.”

Discussing the role of restaurants in the sustainability agenda, Jenny highlighted the huge challenge the sector currently has on its hands: price increases, labour, supply and demand issues as we continually adjust to the pandemic, supply chain shortages, and so on. “Restaurants are feeling the pain more than customers in this respect, so the easy option would be to take the cheapest route and try to please the customer that way. But in the long term, this approach will fall down; the customer wants sustainable options, and restaurants also have a role in educating consumers.”

Encouragingly, some of the biggest names in our sector are engaging with Jenny and businesses like hers. “It’s exciting that some of the best-known restaurants are approaching us and considering alternatives to the food giants… the bigger the businesses making changes, the more impact they have”.

While Jenny’s customer base is branching out – for example, to food service more broadly, including hospitality at sports stadiums, train operators and bars – the conversation leaves us optimistic not just about the pace of change, but also how broad-based it might be.

As we move into the latter phases of Covid-19, companies will be reimagining their offering to align with new consumer trends. For restaurants, building sustainability credentials into the core business model will be a vital part of this. While Daniel Humm’s business represents a tiny portion of the global restaurant network, lessons can be learnt from his bold move and translated onto a global scale. |